It was around hour 13, with sleep still eluding me, that I began to seriously regret my decision to take the train from Chicago to Berkeley. The train had been stopped for three hours somewhere in the vast fields between Creston, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska, and the pitch black void outside the windows suggested that it was sometime around 3 a.m.
As I adjusted my position for the umpteenth time that evening, I began to question why I had decided to take the train for 52 hours back to school. Yes, there had always been a part of me that wanted to go on such a trip. But the stress of creating my future path had been growing over winter break after I had graduated in December and had become unmanageable.
The strain of trying to make a plan without knowing what I wanted out of that plan made me crave a situation in which I could exert absolutely no control. Nothing was better for that than being carried across the country by a machine on a specific and unchanging course.
My longing to escape started after I had attended a holiday party back home. Throughout the course of that night the inevitable slew of questions followed: “So, what’s your plan? Do you know where you’ll be next year? Are you trying to find a job?”
Every time someone asked me about my future, my anger mounted. In my head, the answers were all no — I don’t have a plan, I don’t know where I’ll be next year, I haven’t found a job. And instead of telling the truth, I lied, spewing some made-up story about traveling or working somewhere in the Bay Area. With many of my friends securing jobs or making grandiose travel plans, I felt like I was a failure if I didn’t have a plan or know what I wanted my life to look like. Not knowing the answer to the question made me feel terrible about my lack of direction and my inability to admit to myself and others that I didn’t know what I wanted.
So as I lay there, I began to think about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with all of my newfound freedom. Amid the vast array of possibilities that came to mind — a major in political science could entail anything from working on a political campaign to filling nearly any role at an NGO — none struck me.
While I had always enjoyed learning about the ever-changing political regimes and power structures in countries throughout the world, I worried that no job could give me the euphoria I felt when I discovered new material in class. I dreaded the thought of having to sit at a desk all day, which left me few options in a job market dominated by office work. I lay there as stuck as the train that I was aboard.
All of a sudden, though, the train started moving again, and I fell asleep.
When I woke up, we were in Colorado. For the 10 glorious hours of daylight that followed, the train chugged through the mountains, past monstrous snowcaps covered in evergreens and through tunnels that had been carved out of the rock. And for those 10 hours, I sat and looked out the window and found myself thinking about absolutely nothing. I zoned out and lost myself in the way the train wound steadily around the edge of the mountains.
Instead of thinking about what lay ahead of me, I had spent all day marveling at the natural beauty around me. I hadn’t spent hours agonizing over my lack of direction, and I found that that was the ultimate unburdening.
By the time the full 52 hours had passed, the pain and regret of that 13th hour had been outweighed by the peace I felt. I had not come up with a plan for the rest of my life, or even for the next six months. But I had come to terms with the fact that not having a plan was OK — that not having certainty wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There is so much pressure to know who you are and what you want to be immediately out of college that it can feel overwhelming if you don’t know the answers to those questions. I certainly felt, and have continued to feel, that pressure since finishing school. My mistake, and I think a mistake that a lot of other postgrads make, was thinking that because the pressure existed, it mattered.
Moving in a single massive vehicle through some of the most beautiful parts of America made my fear of that pressure seem trivially insignificant. The vastness of the world made me realize how many possibilities I had. My lack of a plan was an asset, not a detriment; any part or all of that world could be mine — I wasn’t limited.
It’s not that the train ride provided me with the answers to some of life’s biggest questions, but I do believe that it lessened the burden of those questions. Sitting on a train for days and being forced to become comfortable with just watching the movement of the world outside calmed me down.
Graduation, at least for me, is a time of massive uncertainty and fear. I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what I want to do with my life — but thanks to my train ride, I am OK with fully admitting that.